July TBR Challenge Review: Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “How Did This Get Here? (a book you can’t remember how/why you put in your TBR!).” I have too good a memory, and my TBR is of relatively few years’ duration, but I did find this book that I had forgotten buying. It’s obvious why I bought it: being historical fiction set in Scotland and based on the life of a real woman, I probably thought it would work in a way that many Scottish-set historical romances don’t for me. It mostly didn’t.

Reading this book was an experience in expectations. I was reading the ebook version of the 2010 Sourcebooks re-issue, pictured above. Beautiful cover, right? And it definitely signals “historical” over “romance”; the dominant image is of the woman, with the pair of swans near the shore taking up the rest of the cover. It highlights that the book is based on the life of a real woman, Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon from 1767 to 1812. The symbolism of the swans, who are monogamous and mate for life, is a pretty subtle romance reference. So I went into the book expecting it to be heavy on historical detail, (hopefully accurate), and knowing that the romance might not have a happy ending, since the author’s kind of stuck with what historically occurred.

The first section concerns Jane’s childhood and young adulthood; we learn about her family and her dearest friend, Thomas Fraser. They live in Edinburgh, although the Frasers are displaced Highland Scots. Thomas’ parents are both dead as a result of the uprising of 1745, and his uncle Simon is determined that Thomas will help him restore the Fraser clan to prosperity. Jane’s parents live apart; her father is a baronet, and maintaining separate households means that the family finances are stretched. So although Thomas and Jane are close from a very early age, his uncle and her mother are determined to keep them apart romantically, seeking more lucrative matches for each. Simon purchases Thomas a commission in a regiment of Scottish soldiers being sent to fight in America. Jane wants to elope before he leaves, but Thomas refuses; he says that when he returns in two or three years, he will be independent of Simon and then they can marry. They fight over this, but share a passionate last-minute farewell.

Word comes from America that Thomas has been killed by Indians, one of several Scotsmen butchered beyond recognition and buried in a mass grave. Jane is devastated, and has to be bullied by her mother and cajoled by her sisters into participating in any aspect of social life. She meets Alexander, the young Duke of Gordon, who is mourning the death of his mistress in childbirth; they have enough in common to become friends, and Alexander soon decides that he wants to marry her. Jane resists, admitting that her heart is still with Thomas, and delays as much as she can — she is attracted to Alex, but doesn’t feel ready to commit to him. Between him and her mother, however she is persuaded. Meanwhile, Thomas is not dead; he is recovering on a plantation in Maryland, run by a young woman named Arabella, who would very much like him to stay with her. She doesn’t send the letter he writes to tell Jane and his family that he is still alive, so when he returns to Scotland, the wedding has already taken place. Jane receives the letter while she and Alex are on their honeymoon, with disastrous consequences.

The romantic plot of the book is thus established. Thomas and Jane love each other, but she is married to Alex, whom she also cares for. Alex is unable to really be happy with Jane or trust her, so he alternately treats her with great passion and isolates himself from her. He also gets her pregnant a lot. Jane’s attempts to put Thomas out of her mind and focus on her marriage aren’t successful, at least in part because Alex feels like second best and therefore isn’t happy. Thomas periodically shows up in their lives, and each time it sets Alex off again.

All of this romantic back and forth, with honestly little progress forward, takes place against the background of historical events. Jane throws herself into society and politics because of Alex’s frequent bouts of sulking withdrawal, so many other historical figures appear in the book, and the time between romantic incidents is filled with events like the anti-Catholic Gordon riots (started by Alex’s younger brother), the literary success of Robbie Burns, political wrangling to bring William Pitt the younger to power, and the first bout of King George III’s mental illness. Thomas returns to America twice in the book, so we see events of the revolution and its aftermath there as well.

The two levels of the book, romantic and historic, didn’t flow together very well for me. It felt like I was reading two different books sometimes. While I finished the book, I can’t say I was particularly happy with it as either a romance or a history. The romance (forced to follow at least the outlines of Jane’s real life) could not reach a really happy conclusion. While I’m a big fan of middle-age second chances, and I appreciated the realism of the situation and some of how it was handled, I didn’t feel that the story was resolved at the point where the book ended. The book reaches a (rather abrupt) “happy for now” ending that, I suppose, was all the author could manage within the confines of biography.

As far as history, I was disappointed in the author’s note about her research and the book’s historical basis. She points out that there’s still no scholarly biography of Jane Maxwell and provides a lengthy lists of sources, mostly private letters and documents, which she consulted in her research. All well and good, but then she writes:

My goal has been to combine the facts that are known from the written record about Jane Maxwell, with intelligent supposition about what is not known. This biographical novel spins a tale about love and the vagaries of fortune that shaped the life of a woman of great achievement in an age that, in many surprising ways, set the stage for our own.

Although great effort has been invested in weaving accurate research into the novel concerning the linkages between the Gordon and Fraser clans, Jane Maxwell, and the period in which she lived, several minor chronological shifts and time condensations were made for dramatic purposes within this work of fiction. None, I trust, distorts the overall sense of the story as I have been able to unravel it.

That’s it. No identification of these “minor” changes to history, which means that as a reader, I can’t really judge whether distortion has occurred or not. That annoys me, and frankly I expect more transparency from authors who claim to have based their book on thorough research while acknowledging that they have taking authorial license. If I read another book by this author, it would have to be one with primarily fictional main characters.

One other thing that made my reading experience difficult in this book was the poor quality of the digital edition. Although I’m sure the trade paperback is lovely, the digital edition has formatting and typographical errors that were intrusive in my reading experience. The two repeated errors that I noticed most were the occasional center-justified sections, with ragged margins left and right, and words that should be spelled with a double f instead containing a tf (most frequently, “otficer”). I have never noticed before how many double-f words there are in English. Additionally, there is no link back to the Table of Contents from the in-book menu, which meant going back to check something was not an easy process. I actually checked my records to see what I paid for this book, and I was glad I got it for $2.99 (instead of the current Kindle price of $7.99), because the digital edition isn’t worth much more than that.

I have to share the book’s original cover, too. I’m not sure it would have given me more accurate expectations, but they certainly would have been different ones.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mo
    Jul 21, 2012 @ 22:55:03

    I have gotten Island of Swans out twice from my local library. Both times I had to return it unread. Thanks to your review I don’t think I’ll be borrowing it again. I know there is a follow up novel that focuses on Thomas (it’s a time travel novel set in modern times). In my experience there are few authors who can mesh historical fact/events and romance plot lines successfully.


    • sonomalass
      Jul 23, 2012 @ 22:58:30

      Really, there’s a time-travel book about Thomas? I don’t know if I want to read that or not. He’s clearly the most fictionalized character in the novel, so maybe it would feel less manipulative of the history to read a book focused on him.

      To me, the basic problem is that history is a lot less tidy than most genre fiction, especially when it comes to endings. To write good fiction, you need to shape the story differently than you do to write compelling history or biography. I think it’s easier to do with fictional characters set against a historical backdrop than with the stories of real people.


  2. Lynnd
    Jul 22, 2012 @ 10:14:27

    I read this book when it first came out way back when and I still have it on my bookshelves. I recall that I thought it was O.K., but I really, really wanted to know the true story of Jane, Duchess of Gordon. She and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire were huge rivals and both were very influencial women of their time. Jane was a Tory and Georgiana was a Whig. Jane was a patron of the arts, including promoting Scottish Country Dancing at the English court. The bit in the book about her finding good matches for her daughters seems to be very true. They were married to some of the most powerful peers in the land. I wish someone would do a biography of her as they did for the Duchess of Devonshire. We need more biographies of women like these.


    • sonomalass
      Jul 23, 2012 @ 22:52:40

      I would like to read a biography of the Duchess; her achievements fascinated me, and I actually got annoyed a few times when the focus shifted to the highly fictionalized romance plot and skimmed over the actual known history. Or maybe those skips were a sign that the history isn’t known there; without detailed author’s notes, that’s hard to judge.


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